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Remember what your mother taught you

Pearls of wisdom and welcome humor punctuated electric utility executive Thomas Baker's advice to 2009 graduates. 

--Thomas Baker, chairman emeritus of Energy Future Holdings Corp. and chair of the university's Engineering Advisory Council, gave this speech to the December, 2009 Cockrell School of Engineering graduates.

No college degree is easy to obtain, certainly not one in engineering.  I commend you on your stick-to-it attitude, blood, sweat and tears...and that is just for the parents, spouses and families!

When I was contacted to present an address today, I asked if there were any specific suggestions regarding what I should talk about.  I was told about 12 minutes! You know, commencement speakers need to think of themselves like a body at an old fashion Irish wake.  You are needed in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.  Actually, it was suggested that I share a few things that I learned in my career that might be helpful to achieve success.

But as I began to prepare, the real question is “what is success”?  How do you measure it?  Is it money? Titles? Recognition?  Perhaps it is something that you would like people to read in your obituary.  It could be as basic as just having a good life.

You have a number of tools in your tool kit for life & successes.

You obtained a tremendous education in engineering and the sciences at the Cockrell School of Engineering, one of the best colleges in the country.  In addition to an understanding of engineering principles, you have developed a very valuable skill, which is the ability to think through problems in an orderly organized basis and to use analytical and cognitive thinking to reach solutions.  That skill will be valuable in whatever paths you travel whether it be engineering, finance, business, politics, family challenges and so on.

But, what else is important?

I’d suggest making and maintaining effective meaningful relationships.  It’s pretty basic stuff, but incredibly important.

Remember what your mother taught you.  Play nice with people, say please and thank you.  Whatever field you pursue, you will find that you don’t just deal with computers, hardware, formulas and science; what you deal with is people.  It’s all about relationships.  Relationships with work associates, supervisors, subordinates, stockholders, regulators, media, customers, vendors, family, neighbors, etc.  That’s one reason to study history.  You can learn what makes people tick.  It is also critical to communicate effectively, both in verbal and written form.  Listen, listen, listen, look people in the eye, smile, relax, ask questions, be polite.  And, did I say listen.  By the way, when you go to a meeting, you're not listening (communicating) if you have your blackberry in your hand under the table looking at emails and texts.  In fact you are telling the person speaking that he/she isn’t important and that you don’t care anything about what they are saying.  It is rude, shows a lack of respect, makes a bad impression and negatively impacts any relationship.   Put the Blackberry away for an hour, you can live that long without it!  Respect is another element of communicating effectively.

I’m reminded of the corporate executive whose hobby was hot air ballooning.   One Saturday morning he went out for a balloon ride before he was to meet a friend for a late lunch.  During the flight, the winds suddenly changed and the balloon was thrown about, twisted and turned.  When the wind died down, the executive did not know where he was.  He let the balloon descend to try to get his bearings.  He saw a woman walking on a path beneath him and shouted at her to get her attention.  She turned and looked up at the man in the balloon.

The executive said, “Lady, I encountered a severe wind and got lost.  I don’t know where I am and I’m supposed to meet a friend for lunch and am late.  Can you tell me where I am?”

The woman said, “Yes, you are in a hot air balloon hovering about 75 feet above the earth.  You position is 32 degrees 52 minutes North latitude and 96 degrees 48 minutes west longitude.” 

The executive said, “Lady, you must be an engineer.”

She responded, “I am an engineer.  How did you know?”

“Well”, the executive responded, “what you told me was technically accurate and absolutely correct, however I still don’t know where I am.  As a practical matter, Lady, you haven’t helped me at all!”

The engineer replied, “Well, you must be in management!”

“I am.  How did you know?” the executive replied

“Well, to begin with, you don’t have any idea where you are and you have no clue as to where you are going.  You arose to your current position using vast quantities of hot air.  You’ve made promises you can’t keep and you look to people beneath you to solve your problems.  As a practical matter you are in exactly the same position you were in when we met, but now, somehow it’s MY fault!”

The balloon story shows that the executive didn’t communicate to the engineer with respect.  Additionally, the engineer didn’t communicate effectively.  She was accurate but not effective.  So the relationship was doomed from the beginning.

As an aside, the story also demonstrates a problem with titles.  They’re not what they are cracked up to be.  Being an executive can be perceived as negatively as it can be positive.  An engineer can be perceived as a techno-geek.  Actually we know that an engineer is an accountant with a personality.

I’ve had a lot of titles.  One of my most fascinating jobs was when I had a new title never used in the company, Manager of Regulatory Services.  No one knew what I did, but I was a “Manager” which was supposedly a big deal.  I supervised a total of two people.  However, several projects I worked had a direct impact on the results of the company.  No one read about me in the Annual Report, but they sure read about the projects.  The satisfaction was in being a contributor.  Bigger titles came later.  Big titles get you named in lawsuits.

But, back to being respectful. To ensure you treat all people with respect, remember what your mother told you again.  Funny how your mothers seem to get smarter and smarter the older you get.  The manager in the hot air balloon wasn’t very patient and respectful to the engineer and it created instant hostility.  Treat everyone with respect:

          Whether they have a title or no title

          Whether they are in blue collar or white collar jobs

          Regardless of their skin color, it doesn’t matter

          Regardless of their culture.  Learn it.  It’s not bad, just different.

The golden rule is right on.  Thanks mom.

When I was in the military, I had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant.  Everyone went around saluting me and calling me “Sir”.  The first thing I did was to develop a solid respectful relationship with the sergeant.  I had a title, but I also knew the sergeant was the one that made things happen.  He had experience and I was as green as a gourd.  I sought his advice and counsel.  I needed him with me, not against me.  He knew I was an officer, but he also knew I respected his ability.  If you need any additional information on the topic of respect, ask your mother.

Change.

Don’t get in a rut.  Love and seek change.  A lot of people don’t want the world to change.  That’s not how life works.  The real world changes every second.  You’d better lead the change and not chase it.

I graduated only 41 years ago.  Forty-one years doesn’t seem very long to me anymore although you probably think it is an eternity.  You’re thinking, “How old is this guy anyway?”  What’s happened since 1968? 

  • I used a slide rule.  I used it the other day to kill a spider.  I’ve seen the invention of the electronic calculator, personal computers, and iPhone, which has an HP 12C on it.
  • We went to the moon
  • We went from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution.
  • The periodic table of the elements has changed.  Where did all that new stuff come from?
  • An atom was the smallest particle.  Couldn’t get any smaller than that.
  • Good grief!! Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.

My career was in electric regulated utilities.  In 1999 the industry was deregulated in Texas.  It has resulted in major opportunities for the 100-year-old power grid.  As president of the company, I was explaining deregulation to a group of transmission system design engineers.  I told them that anyone would be able to build a generator anywhere and any other retailer could sell power from any generator to any customer.  I was asked “how do we design an electric transmission system, provide voltage support and maintain reliability  if we don’t know where the power is coming from or where it is going to?”  I said, I was a big picture guy, that’s why we have you smart guys here to figure it out.  Of course, I didn’t have a clue, but those transmission guys figured it out along with many other new challenges that arrived with deregulation. 

Some of what you’ve learned the last few years is changing as we speak.  Therefore you must stay informed, keep learning, don’t believe everything you read, engage and ask questions.  In a commencement address in 1977 Dr. Seuss said:

“My Uncle ordered popovers

From the restaurant's bill of fare,

And when they were served,

He regarded them with a penetrating stare.

Then, he spoke great words of wisdom

As he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things”,

Said my Uncle,

“You must exercise great care,

You may swallow down what’s solid

BUT, you must spit out the air!

 

And as you partake of the worlds’ bill of fare

That’s darned good advice to follow,

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,

And be careful what you swallow.

One of the better refrigerator magnets says, “Life isn’t about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself”.  I’m still creating me and I’m curious to see how it’s going to turn out! 

Everyone has a few bad habits.  One of mine is riding Harleys.  A lot of good philosophy can be found on motorcycle tee shirts.  One of my favorites is “It’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey”.  I wish each of you every success in your future and in integrating your engineering skills into your journey.

Well, we’ve seen that a lot of sources for advice for becoming a success are your mother, Dr. Seuss, refrigerator magnets and motorcycle tee shirts!     James chapter 4 verse 14 states that “For what is your life?  It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” So, to be a success,  put the pedal to the metal and live each moment to the fullest. 

Dance as though no one is watching you,

Love as though you have never been hurt before

Sing as though no one can hear you

Live as though heaven is on earth

I wish you every success.  Congratulations on this milestone today.